Britain's Last Dambuster Visits
20 March 2017
Britain’s last surviving Dambuster crew member, Johnny Johnson was the special guest at Phyllis Court Club last week for the unveiling of the first high-definition colour photographs taken of the original models that Johnny and his crew used for their historic assault on the German reservoirs in May 1943 that were originally made at the private members club.
During 1943, modellers of the V-Section RAF Medmenham were based at the club whilst Medmenham was being refurbished and worked on secret models including those of the Dambusters.
The models were unearthed and photographed thanks to Club member Philip Nugus, a documentary filmaker who has made over 500 documentaries with the Imperial War Museum (IWM) over many years including making four documentaries about the Dambuster Raid. He has donated the framed photographs to the club.
Philip said, “I joined Phyllis Court Club seven years ago and noticed the wooden plaque in the entrance recognising the work of the RAF modellers (they were a mixture of staff from London art schools, sculptors, cartographers and British and US film studio modellers). I had a childhood fascination with the Dambusters and the feature film in 1955 made a lasting impression on me. In 1966 I joined the RAF for pilot training before my publishing, film and television career. In 1972 I published Purnells, History of the Second World War which included the first declassified photos of the Dambuster raid.”
Whilst Philip was in production on The Century of Warfare TV series in 1993. He was made aware by the IWM of a highly restricted underground archive store at RAF Duxford where the nation’s historical nitrate film was stored. Philip was given access to the material for the series including the first ever moving footage released by the IWM of the Dambusters Raid itself.
“In 2015 it suddenly occurred to me the original models of the dams might be in that deep storage bunker at RAF Duxford. Having been a good customer of the IWM for many years they agreed to look for the original models but they asked me to be patient as it might take many weeks to find them – I then had to be a bit persuasive for them to agree to have them photographed. The IWM archive film staff couldn’t have been more helpful and I was delighted when I got a call to say that they had found them. They then commissioned a photographer to take a high resolution colour photographs. This was the first time in many years that the models had seen daylight again and the colours were wonderfully evocative of the 1940s”, added Philip.
At the end of last year, Philip first showed the photos of the two dams at a talk he gave to members at the Club about the model making and the high level of security surrounding them (which included curtains around the models and barbed wire perimeter fencing). Philip said, “The Probus Section and the Aviators’ Circle were absolutely thrilled that I had found the models and suggested that we create a permanent display here. The IWM agreed to give me a special contract to specifically print high resolution photos as I had worked with them for over 40 years however they did stipulate that the location of the photos needs to be in a public room in the Club where the models were made. (The photos are exactly 75% of the original models actual size).”
On agreeing all the final details with the Club, Philip explained, “There was only one person I was hoping to have here at the unveiling and that was Johnny Johnson who is the last surviving Dambuster crew member (aged 96). Johnny’s son, Morgan had the same publisher as me so we made the connection through this route. On receiving the invitation Morgan said, Dad “remembered your films and would love to come. Try stopping him!”
Johnny recounted some great recollections of his part in the Raid to a packed ballroom of members who Philip said, “were hanging on his every word. They knew they were in the presence of someone very special.” Johnny remembered seeing the models for the first time, “The charts were on the wall but there were also models on tables, carefully crafted miniature replicas of hills, lakes, forests, buildings and dams. The models were of the M?hne and the Sorpe reservoirs (the Eder model hadn’t been finished on time) and at last the penny dropped. We were to be attacking the dams.”
The models were made from plywood and plaster of paris with contours which were then covered with a mosaic of black and white photographs that were stretched with a special solution over the contours before being hand painted – the modellers had to guess the colours to use!
When they reached the Sorpe dam, Johnny, the bomb aimer and his crew did ten run ups at just 60 feet. On the 10th run, they were tired and worried that they wouldn’t hit the target but they dropped their bomb perfectly – six similar hits would have breached the Sorpe dam but the high casualty rate prevented this.
Describing the scene afterwards Johnny said, “Our return journey took us directly over what had been, until 20 minutes earlier the M?hne dam. The only way I can describe it was that it looked like an inland sea. It was simply amazing. We obviously took some satisfaction looking down on this. Any features that I might have tried to pick out were now submerged.”
Air Chief Marshal, Sir Paddy Hine (RAF) who was also a Club member was present to publicly thank Johnny on behalf of the RAF on the very dignified way in which he has kept the memory of the 53 casualties and the Raid alive and for the tremendous amount of charity work he has carried out over the years.
The two donated photographs of the models are now on the wall of the Club Room with two smaller photographs – one shows the models being constructed and the other shows the leader of the raid, Wing Commander Guy Gibson RAF, VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, showing the model of the M?hne Dam to His Majesty King George VI.
Phyllis Court Club Chairman Mrs Patricia Christmas commented “it is an important event for Phyllis Court Club as the photographs will be exhibited in their new home in the historic Phyllis Court Club Room, just yards from the Ballroom where the models were originally created by the RAF. We recognise the importance of this as we remember the 53 air crew who did not return, but it did help to turn the tide of the war.”
The event was raising funds for the ‘International Bomber Command Centre’. If you would like to donate, please go to their website http://www.internationalbcc.co.uk/donate
Text and Images credit: Michaela Clarke